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The 12 Best Movies From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

the 12 best movies from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Our ace correspondent and resident cineaste Abbie Martin Greenbaum has curated a list of the best, award-winning and most talked-about new movies from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

the best of the 2021 sundance film festival

We all miss the thrill of in-person film festivals: waiting in line, surrounded by fellow cinephiles, knowing that the movie you’re about to see might be the next big thing.

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Although we can’t wait to get back to crowded theaters, virtual Sundance 2021 did a wonderful job of capturing some of that same magic. More than any other film festival, something about Sundance – whether in-person or online – inspires an almost child-like awe. Each movie at the Independent festival feels like the first movie you’ve ever watched.  And we were delighted to enjoy that same special experience, even watching at home on our laptops.

As well as their always-impressive slew of new narrative films, documentaries, and shorts, this year’s festival also screened Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and Robin Wright’s Land, both of which will reach national theaters next week.

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And as for the rest of the films, here are twelve that emerged with awards, distribution, and plenty of buzz. Read below and keep your eyes peeled over the next twelve months – these movies might just be the next big thing.

the 12 best, most talked-about films from sundance 2021

1. CODA

It seems safe to say that this year’s festival was the year of CODA (Child of Deaf Adults).  After a bidding war that broke records for Sundance, Sian Heder’s film sold to Apple for $25 million. The film then went on to break records within Sundance’s own awards, sweeping with Grand Jury wins in the US Dramatic Competition for Directing, Best Ensemble, and best film, as well as the Audience Award.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Coda. Courtesy Photo.

The film tells the story of a family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, whose adolescent daughter – the only hearing member of their family – is torn between the family’s fishing business, and her dreams of pursuing music school.

2. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Another film that collected awards from both the Audience and the festival’s Grand Jury is Summer of Soul. It won both prizes for Documentary within the US competition. Directed by Questlove, the film is comprised primarily of archival footage from 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival: a landmark festival that featured Black music and culture, and that celebrated Black pride.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Summer of Soul. Courtesy Photo.

The film features icons such as Gladys Knight, B.B. King, and Stevie Wonder, joyful clips of the mesmerized crowd, and commentary from those in the present day, looking back at this historic event.

3. Hive

The film from Blerta Basholli also picked up multiple awards. Within the World Cinema category, it won the Audience Award, and the Grand Jury Prizes for both Directing and best film.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Hive. Courtesy Photo.

Based on a true story, the film is about a woman who must establish a business in Kosovo to support her family, in the aftermath of her husband’s disappearance.

4. Flee

Neon has acquired Flee, the animated feature that achieved the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary within the World Cinema category. The film’s protagonist is a man named Amin – animated to obscure his identity – who is a close friend of the director, and who held his identity a secret from him for many years.

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Flee. Courtesy Photo.

Now Amin reveals his past.  It is brought to brutal life on screen: a refugee from Afghanistan. Amin escaped in the 1980’s, enduring immeasurable hardship and fear as he sought safety, both as an immigrant and as a gay man.

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5. On the Count of Three

Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the US Dramatic Competition, On the Count of Three tells the story of two best friends who have made a suicide pact. They elect to spend one final day alive, so that they can tie up the loose ends in both their lives.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: On the Count of Three. Courtesy Photo.

The movie resembles a serious and difficult Ferris-Bueller’s-Day-Off-gone-wrong, but is also injected with exactly enough humor, thanks to its direction from lead actor, comedian Jerrod Carmichael.

6. Searchers

Pacho Velez’s documentary about dating apps looks like it is a lot of fun. He interviews many app users, all of whom have different takes on the current dating scene in New York.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Searchers. Courtesy Photo.

Though the film is about online dating in general, the pandemic looms in the background. Many have had to readjust their plans thanks to the risk of COVID-19.

7. Faya Dayi

Jessica Beshir writes and directs Faya Dayi, a documentary set in Harar, Ethiopia. The film, shot in black and white, is a deep dive into the stimulant leaf known as khat. Though khat began as something chewed in religious rituals, it has become an enormous part of everyday life in Ethiopia.

sundance film festival 2021

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Faya Dayi. Courtesy Photo.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Beshir discusses her desire to capture the experience of life in Harar on screen.

8. One for the Road

Recipient of the Special Jury Award for Creative Vision, One for the Road is a Thai-language film from director Baz Poonpiriya.

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: One for the Road. Courtesy Photo.

It’s a story about an estranged friendship that is forced to reconcile. When Boss receives a call that his former friend, Aood, is dying of cancer. Boss flies from New York to Thailand, and the two embark on a road trip, hoping to help Aood make amends with those he’s wronged before it is too late.

9. Mass

Small in stature but not in emotion, Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is a one-room face-off between two couples: the parents of a victim of a school shooting, and the parents of his murderer.

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Mass. Courtesy Photo.

Much has been said about the strength of performances here – particularly Martha Plimpton’s and Ann Dowd’s – which are given the chance to shine thanks to pared-down nature of the picture.

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10. I Was a Simple Man

From Christopher Makoto Yogi comes a new kind of ghost story: at the end of his life, a family’s eldest is visited by the spirits of his past.

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: I was a Simple Man. Courtesy Photo.

Set on the shore of Oahu, Hawaiian mythology helps to bring to life this cerebral film about regrets.

11. Luzzu

The star of Alex Camilleri’s film, Jesmark Scicluna, was awarded the Special Jury Award for Acting in the World Cinema competition.

One of the best award-winning films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Luzzu. Courtesy Photo.

Scicluna plays a Maltese fisherman who is forced to enter the black-market fishing industry in order to support his family. The movie has been acquired by Memento Films.

12. Writing With Fire

Winner of the Audience Award for documentary in the World Cinema competition, Writing with Fire offers a profile of the only all-female newspaper in all of India.

One of the best and most talked-about films from the 2021 Sundance Festival: Writing with Fire. Courtesy Photo.

The women who work at the paper are all from marginalized communities. The movie aims to highlight the power they are able to wield in their positions as journalists.

The 12 Best Movies From the 2021 Sundance Film  Festival

That’s our wrap-up of some of the award-winning and most talked-about films from Sundance 2021. Can’t wait until they hit the screen so we can all see them! What’s at the top of your list?

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Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema, which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.

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